By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Adrian Wyld, CP.
Making a stop in Bewdley, Ontario for breakfast, the prime minister descended by motorcade upon the small town of six hundred. Trudeau, forming the epicenter of a small, adulating circus, would make his way through the enchanted crowds lining the salted path; wearing his usual armour for these visits: a brand-appropriate red snow jacket, a becollared pullover and most crucial of all, his winsome smile.
Perhaps sensing misfortune in his midst that Friday the thirteenth, he declined an invite from the local ice fishermen; electing instead to spend time at Rhino’s Roadhouse. There he answered questions, stood for pictures and accepted a Rhino’s t-shirt to much fanfare.
The prime minister’s visit to Bewdley was not simply an accident, his motorcade hadn’t found itself banked in the snow outside of Port Hope; rather, it was another stop in his new cross-country tour that had begun just the day prior outside of Ottawa. A tour being simultaneously adored by flocks of curious attendees, while lampooned by the cynics and journalists among us as a vain exercise in publicity: an attempt to revive Trudeau’s image among the Tim Hortons circuit; demonstrating his engagement and his connection to ‘regular Canadians’ outside the so-called ‘Ottawa bubble’ in a political climate where ‘populists’ like Trump and Leitch have actively sowed hate and distrust for ‘elites.’
(My apologies for the overuse of scare quotes, but you know how it is these days.)
Many have questioned the value behind this cross-country tour since public consultations in a modern democracy are not done by town halls but rather, polls and focus groups and other more scientific means. From a publicity sense, the image of the tour as engaging with average Canadians has predictably been countered by media outlets, seizing the opportunity to dog Trudeau for his private and potentially illegal use of a helicopter during a family vacation in the Bahamas, while depicting the tour itself, through soundbites of sour taxpayers, as a train ride that was derailed before it began.
In turn, Trudeau supporters have used the enthusiasm of the crowds to defend the cross-country tour, but today’s liberals would hardly be the first to mistake enthusiastic crowds with electoral strength.
Christina McCall’s gorgeous Grits recounts the time then prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau pulled a journalist aside in his East Block office to point to the crowds of onlookers out his window. “They are not disappointed,” Trudeau reportedly said as he scolded him, “it’s only cynics like you who are.” Not long after that, Pierre Elliot Trudeau would survive re-election only narrowly, coming within two seats of defeat, having been perilously unaware of just how disappointed Canadians – not just the hacks and cynics in the press gallery but regular folks – had been with his own bungling government.
Crowds prove little in the way of popularity in a national sense.
Both the previous election – by all accounts, a joyous coronation – and its ruinous sequel had seen Pierre engage Canadians in meandering campaigns, taking part in ‘Conversations with Canadians,’ not all that unlike his son’s own cross-country tour. Answering topical questions with rambling, listless spiels that were wholly and inexplicably undeserving of the spontaneous rapture they seemed to inspire at rallies, Trudeau failed in that first campaign to learn or appreciate the art of campaigning.
Woefully unprepared for the diverging of his political support from his enduring celebrity and naively indifferent to politics, Justin Trudeau’s father learnt the hard way that it took more than crowds and Q & As to win re-election, he had disappointed Canadians that had trusted him to bring about real change – and there’s only so much you can say to answer for that. Certainly, Justin Trudeau and his team are far more prepared and far more experienced in politics, but there is little precedent for the kind of political celebrity that Justin Trudeau, and his father before him, have cultivated. All of us – the PMO, the media, the opposition – are just making this thing up as we go along.
To that end, Trudeau’s cross-country tour seems less like such a desperate exercise in damage control – countering impressions of him as ‘out of touch’ (as its been portrayed by the media)– than it does, a strategic series of pre-campaign stops across the country.
Journalists, caught up in talking points left over from Trump’s win, have framed the tour as some sort of populist-slaying meet-and-greet, partly because Trudeau’s own birthright makes him vulnerable to such accusations of elitism. Just as Peter MacKay, a conservative, was criticized for being airlifted from his fishing expedition at the expense of taxpayers, Justin Trudeau, can be expected to be attacked for demonstrations of private wealth because the media frames its stories in ways that match our expectations: the not-so-spendthrift conservative, the entitled liberal. Acts of caricature, all of it.
While the PMO has been slow to share details of where the cross-country tour is scheduled to visit next, the pattern that’s emerging suggests there’s a fairly calculated sense behind the choice of stops: they’re mostly bellwethers, battlegrounds and freshly Liberal ridings.¹ Journalists have been paying so much attention to what the prime minister has and has not been saying in his talking points, what’s been overlooked is the choice of venue: a physical road-map for Team Trudeau, showing their hand as it were, revealing where its priorities lie. A preview of the upcoming 2019 federal election.
Trudeau began his tour leaving Ottawa through the only Ottawa riding that stayed conservative (albeit on its outskirts) last election: Pierre Poilievre’s riding. He also visited Gord Brown’s riding, the Tory whip involved in Elbowgate, at which the Liberals saw its best results last election since the days of the Jordan dynasty in the 90s – the first time a son had directly succeeded a father federally in the same constituency. Trudeau also spoke at Kingston, a longtime liberal gem on the shores of Eastern Ontario before proceeding to visit a very peculiar pocket of political geography in cottage country: Peterborough, a competitive bellwether riding and three neighboring ridings caught in the red wave last election, amalgamations of former conservative safe-seats that netted surprise wins like Mike Bossio’s slim victory (with just 225 votes) for Trudeau’s Liberals.
If you take this cross-country tour out of its media context – changing the date from 2017 to 2019 – what we have here would casually be called, ‘the campaign trial.’ The routing so far suggests the Trudeau Liberals are keen to hold ridings they’ve upended in last election’s red wave, reward the party faithful and target holdovers from the Harper years, incumbents past their expiry date. Preventing a conservative resurgence means making inroads in the hinterland, a route not dissimilar to Trudeau’s own warpath.
As the cross-country tour continues, expect Trudeau to stick to this formula in carving a route through a lot of Ontario’s cottage country, vineyards, steeltowns, and the nickelbelt: Hamilton, Niagra, Barrie, Muskoka, Perry Sound and Kenora. He appears determined not to make the same mistake as his father had made in assuming his re-election was a forgone conclusion. Certain victory for Trudeau and his party means keeping its foothold on regions of Canada once held by Harper’s conservatives especially in Ontario.
But although it’s worth not getting lost in this current political context and forgetting the electioneering, the strategy behind the cross-country tour as Trudeau prepares for the next election, it would, however, be cruelly cynical to simply paint the cross-country tour as just cheap vote-getting; its unintentional value has been the portrait it’s painted of the Canadian psyche. In the questions posed to the prime minister, we see, not an overwhelming concern for the topical policy discussions (cannabis, electoral reform, cash-for-access and political finances) among Ottawa’s press gallery, but rather a common story, a story as old as the state itself: a story of vulnerable people crushed by the rules, the haplessness and inhumanity of the bureaucracy servicing them, whether the subject be veterans or seniors, First Nations or patients or transprisoners.
It also seems Canadians attending these visits believe in climate change; indeed, many aren’t as keen on the oilsands as the press themselves. However, their concerns lie in the cost of living and the burden that the middle class will pay for Canada’s green shift.
In this respect, the federal government would be wise to listen. Meeting his promises from his election platform would not go without praise but the public seems to have taken Trudeau’s mantra of ‘real change’ and ‘supporting the middle class’ far less literally than the press. Not disappointing voters come next election for Trudeau will mean reinvigorating Canada’s delivery of public services and support more generally to be more responsive, more compassionate and flexible. In doing so, helping to eliminate the stories of neglect that disappoint and embarrass Canadians.
For the Liberals, preventing new grievances will have to mean, not simply attaching more money to areas of interest but modernizing the whole supply chain delivering care, security and support. Trudeau will also have to work on communicating his carbon pricing plan and responding to any extraneous costs it places on consumers. He would be wise to follow up on any problems with carbon pricing closely, even those arising within the confines of a single provincial scheme; any excess inflation could taint the national impression of climate change measures altogether, fueling non-confidence for his agenda.
What’s incredible about Canadians is when given the chance like this cross-country tour to speak with their prime minister, the head of their government, the thing they’re mostly like to voice is a concern they have for someone else’s well-being. It’s yet another example of the genuine compassion of Canada, regardless of the constituency; we’re a kind people and in turn, we deserve a kind leadership.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.
¹ Three of the ridings visited so far even appeared on the Ribbon’s list of the top 25 constituencies-worth-voting-strategically-in. (We’ll have to get a better name for that…)